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If You Want More Higgs Hype, Don’t Read This Column

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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So it’s finally, probably, maybe, happened. Although they are still hedging a bit, physicists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced this morning that they had found the long-sought Higgs boson. First postulated almost a half century ago by physicist Peter Higgs (who attended the press conference today at CERN) and others, the Higgs particle is believed to confer mass to quarks, electrons and other building blocks of our world. (For a primer on the Higgs, see this terrific video by Scientific American‘s George Musser.)

After presentations by two groups gathering data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, CERN director general Rolf Dieter Heuer said, according to The Independent, “As a layman, I would say that I think we have it. Do you agree?” After the audience erupted into applause, Heuer added, “We have a discovery. We have observed a new particle consistent with a Higgs Boson…but which one, it remains open.” “If scientists are lucky,” Dennis Overbye wrote in The New York Times, “the discovery could lead to a new understanding of how the universe began.”

But a few reports were tinged with gloom. Physicist-journalist Adrian Cho noted in Science that “even as physicists celebrate, the discovery raises worries among some that there may remain no new physics that can be discovered with the atom-smasher.” Cho quoted Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg: “My nightmare, and it’s not just me, but a lot of us [in particle physics], is that the LHC discovers the Higgs boson and nothing else… That would be like closing a door.”

I offered my glum take on the Higgs and the future of physics last December, after reports that the LHC had turned up “tantalizing hints” of the Higgs unleashed the hounds of hype. I was especially annoyed by a Wall Street Journal essay, “The ‘God Particle’ and the Origins of the Universe,” in which physicist Michio Kaku exulted, “Physicists around the world have something to celebrate this Christmas.” Responding to my column, Kaku called me “an agent provocateur, throwing flames in all directions, and hoping that some of them may start a fire.” But he conceded that I raised “real and thoughtful scientific questions.” Because my views haven’t changed—and because I think they are still relevant—I’m reprinting an edited version of that December column (along with the same groovy image). Here goes:

The Higgs has long been a mixed blessing for particle physics. In the early 1990s, when physicists were pleading—ultimately in vain–with Congress not to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider, which was sucking up tax dollars faster than a black hole, the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman christened the Higgs “the God particle.” This is scientific hype at its most outrageous. If the Higgs is the “God Particle,” what should we call an even more fundamental particle, like a string? The Godhead Particle? The Mother of God Particle?

Lederman himself confessed that “the Goddamn Particle” might have been a better name for the Higgs, given how hard it had been to detect “and the expense it is causing.” A more fundamental problem is that discovering the Higgs would be a modest, even anti-climactic achievement, relative to the grand ambitions of theoretical physics. The Higgs would serve merely as the capstone of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the workings of electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The Standard Model, because it excludes gravity, is an incomplete account of reality; it is like a theory of human nature that excludes sex. Even Kaku has called the Standard Model “rather ugly” and “a theory that only a mother could love.”

Our best theory of gravity is still general relativity, which does not mesh mathematically with the quantum field theories that comprise the Standard Model. Over the past few decades, theorists have become increasingly obsessed with finding a unified theory, a “theory of everything” that wraps all of nature’s forces into one tidy package. Hearing all the hoopla about the Higgs, the public might understandably assume that it represents a crucial step toward a unified theory–and perhaps at least tentative confirmation of the existence of strings, branes, hyperspaces, multiverses and all the other fantastical eidolons that Kaku, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and other unification enthusiasts tout in their bestsellers.

But the Higgs doesn’t take us any closer to a unified theory than climbing a tree would take me to the Moon. As I’ve pointed out previously, string theory, loop-space theory and other popular candidates for a unified theory postulate phenomena far too minuscule to be detected by any existing or even conceivable (except in a sci-fi way) experiment. Obtaining the kind of evidence of a string or loop that we have for, say, the top quark would require building an accelerator as big as the Milky Way.

Kaku asserted that finding the Higgs “is not enough. What is needed is a genuine theory of everything, which can simply and beautifully unify all the forces of the universe into a single coherent whole—a goal sought by Einstein for the last 30 years of his life.” He insisted that we are at “the beginning, not the end of physics. The adventure continues.” Maybe. But I’m not hopeful. Whether or not physicists find the Goddamn Particle, the quest for unification, which has given physics its glitter over the past half century, looks increasingly like a dead end.

Almost 10 years ago, I put my money where my mouth is. The Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages long-term thinking, asked a bunch of people to make bets about trends in science, technology and other realms of culture. I bet Kaku $1,000 that by the year 2020, “no one will have won a Nobel Prize for work on superstring theory, membrane theory or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature.” (Lee “loop space” Smolin was my original counter-bettor but backed out at the last minute, the big chicken.)

Kaku and I each put up $1,000 in advance, which the Long Now Foundation keeps in escrow. If civilization–or more importantly, the Long Now Foundation–still exists in 2020, it will give $2,000 to a charity designated by me (the Nature Conservancy) or Kaku (National Peace Action). In defending my bet, I stated:

“The dream of a unified theory, which some evangelists call a ‘theory of everything,’ will never be entirely abandoned. But I predict that over the next twenty years, fewer smart young physicists will be attracted to an endeavor that has vanishingly little hope of an empirical payoff. Most physicists will come to accept that nature might not share our passion for unity. Physicists have already produced theories–Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, nonlinear dynamics–that work extraordinarily well in certain domains, and there is no reason why there should be a single theory that accounts for all the forces of nature. The quest for a unified theory will come to be seen not as a branch of science, which tells us about the real world, but as a kind of mathematical theology.”

I added, however—and this is both mawkish tripe and the truth–that “I would be delighted to lose this bet.”

Image by Mark Evans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Addendum: My buddy George Johnson and I talk about the Higgs and other stuff (the future of physics, why there’s something rather than nothing, the Cult of Cthulhu) on Bloggingheads.tv. http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/10113

 

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. VIP 1:13 pm 07/4/2012

    Dennis Overbye wrote in The New York Times, “the discovery could lead to a new understanding of how the universe began.”
    What proof do you have that the universe ever began? None. There is plenty of proof that it was always there, that’s why it’s called the universe.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Unksoldr 4:09 pm 07/4/2012

    VIP = Very Ignorant Person? Plenty of proof it’s always been here? You know some eternal, immoral being that can provide that proof? If it’s GOD don’t bother, I’ll just ask my granddaughter’s unicorn. I’ll be laughing for the rest of the week, thanks! BTW, it’s called the universe because it’s the word ‘we’ made up for it.

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  3. 3. marclevesque 6:08 pm 07/4/2012

    @U ksoldr … “some eternal, immoral being” … :) … typo?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Unksoldr 6:31 pm 07/4/2012

    @M rclevesque :) , correct, should be immortal but works just as well and expresses my overall opinion of GOD’s and religions.

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  5. 5. rloldershaw 9:14 pm 07/4/2012

    “But the Higgs doesn’t take us any closer to a unified theory than climbing a tree would take me to the Moon.”

    Very, very nice!

    Some of us are dismayed at the credulous intoxication on display today, as well as with the decades of make-it-up-as-you-go particle physics. Revise a theory to ‘save the phenomenon’? That’s Ptolemaic “science”.

    RLO

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  6. 6. Mythusmage 9:48 pm 07/4/2012

    What if mass arises through a different mechanism, thus rendering the Higgs Boson unnecessary?

    Link to this
  7. 7. Bee 4:15 am 07/5/2012

    You’ve never heard of the phenomenology of quantum gravity, do you? I’m organizing a conference on the topic in October, send me an email if you want to come, it’s hossi at nordita dot org, Google for Sabine Hossenfelder.

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  8. 8. marclevesque 8:21 am 07/5/2012

    @marclevesque

    Should not have used use smily face : ) , especially on this site

    Link to this
  9. 9. MTpackrat 9:06 am 07/6/2012

    Lately I’ve been wondering when scientists will solve its most basic question: When will they prove their ultimate assumption that the real world does exist independently from the existence of human beings?

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  10. 10. Chris Miller 10:27 am 07/6/2012

    You seem to be saying: “maybe quantum mechanics and general relativity are both true in their respective domains, why should nature require that there be a single theory that encompasses both?” But that just gives rise to more questions, such as: “what and why is the boundary between these domains?”; “what happens at or near the boundary?”; “what about black holes that we would expect to require both QM and GR to describe fully?”.

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  11. 11. Donzzz 12:00 pm 07/6/2012

    Scientists are grasping for straws – something that would justify their salaries and the expense of building their collider. I was taught in high school that when your exert enough force on a particle it begins to gain inertial mass – the more force the more mass until at the speed of light its mass really large. At this stage the harder you push the particle it begins to emit synchrous radiation and loses a little of its mass. To me this means mass is varible – it depends on its energy level relative to absolute space – the higher its “space energy level” the more massive the particle is. This is why stars are formed mostly in the outlying regions of spiral galaxies – where the “space energy level” of particles are more massive and their gravitational force is stronger which enables the the star’s fusion reactions to take place.
    http://novan.com/higgsboson.htm

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  12. 12. Goparts 11:35 am 07/7/2012

    First John Horgan downplays the significance of the Higgs because he doesn’t think it brings us any closer to a unified theory, then he goes on to complain that searching for a unified theory is a waste of effort. He manages to downplay the significance of this discovery on the basis of a program of research he rejects.

    Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this blog is that the author appears to be ignorant of the fundamental role of experiment in the scientific endeavor. Experiment is the arbiter of truth in science. All scientists understand that this is the bottom line. Therefore, the discovery of the Higgs can hardly be considered “modest” or “anti-climactic”. Regardless of what the author of the blog asserts, many theorists absolutely need an understanding of the Higgs to move forward in elementary particle physics.

    Horgan rushes to comment on theories of everything and asserts that the discovery of the Higgs brings us no closer to these cutting edge ideas than climbing a tree would bring us to the moon. He argues that the energy scale required for probing these ideas directly exceeds the capability of any man-made accelerator. Can he honestly argue with absolute confidence that there are no indirect consequences of candidates for unification at the lower energies that can be reached by the LHC?

    Even neglecting consideration of a final theory of everything, many exciting extensions to the standard model, such as super-symmetry may be within reach of the LHC, and an understanding of the Higgs particle(s?) is relevant to these investigations. Ultimately, I agree with Kaku’s assertion. Horgan is simply playing the role of provocateur. In doing so, he mistakenly downplays the role of experiment in science, and fails to appreciate the value of this discovery.

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  13. 13. Quinn the Eskimo 5:21 pm 07/7/2012

    Wow! After hundreds of Billion$ on CERN they *found* SOMETHING. We’re not sure what. We can’t see it. We can’t grab it. But one thing is certain:

    I SMELL GRANT MONEY.

    Stop feeding the Monkeys. We have real problems to solve. Like feeding OUR kids. Getting a job.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Goparts 9:40 am 07/8/2012

    To Quinn the Eskimo: Without the scientific research of yesterday, we would lack the technology that today feeds our children and creates wealth. You want to limit science to things we can “see” with our eyes? A primitive culture whose vision is so limited would find itself unable to feed anyone’s children.

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  15. 15. bucketofsquid 9:45 am 07/11/2012

    Donzz – I think you are confusing apparent mass with real mass. Apparent mass (or relative mass) is actually a function of mass times energy. A 5 pound ball traveling a 1 mile per hour has the same apparent mass as a 1 pound ball traveling at 5 miles per hour. The kinetic energy they shed on impact is the same but the real mass isn’t. Just because E = MC2 works at sub light speed levels doesn’t mean it is actually a complete formula. We won’t know until we can truly test it with actual significant mass at or above light speed.

    Just a side note; Why would you believe anything they taught you in high school? K-12 education is to teach you to be a good citizen. College is where they teach you to think and start on actual truth.

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  16. 16. SoundAndFury 10:36 pm 07/12/2012

    @MTpackrat

    Oh, no you didn’t.

    I have no expertise in physics, so can someone explain how string theory explains the phenomenon observed in the double-slit experiment i.e. the electron changing it’s behaviour based on whether it was being directly observed or not?

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  17. 17. WRQ9 1:15 am 07/13/2012

    You’ve got to admit, at this point, the truth can serve little purpose unless it unfolds something more tangible than anything I have been able to uncover. Fractals is already more “mathematical theology” than any underlying embouchure could ever carry! I Think the best we can hope is that we don’t wind up with a Pandora’s box of astrophysical proportion. Any connection to recent solar flare activity merely coincidental.
    The whole thing kind of stinks of a “naked mother” experience to me. Thinking outside the box could be what is most at risk here. Another possibility is the inception of a new consortium in physics (a sort of a grand jury) parsing every issue relative to the universal theory and leveling qualifying conditions regarding it’s limitation.

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  18. 18. MichaelCPrice 4:48 pm 07/13/2012

    The LHC has observed anomalous charm decay rates that require extension(s) to the standard model, so how can anyone worry that no new non-Higgs physics will emerge? It already has!

    Link to this
  19. 19. Donzzz 8:26 pm 07/13/2012

    bucketofsquid – The inertial mass of a body is simply the kinetic energy of the body relative to absolute space. (relative to other bodies is its momentum) Apparent mass and real mass are the same thing. If a enough force is exerted on a body out in space it will gain inertial mass and will remain at that level relative to absolute space forever. Its gravity will be a little stronger. (thanks Newton). A proto star on the outlying area of a spiral galaxy is spinning faster relative to absolute space therefore its stronger G force will cause become more compact until finally allowing fusion reactions to take place and burst into a full fledge star.
    http://novan.com/sel.htm

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  20. 20. Eugene Sittampalam 4:41 pm 07/14/2012

    It would seem most counterintuitive that anything external to a body such as a field could endow (intrinsic) mass or energy to the body. Typically, inertia can now be easily explained by the classical ether and by re-instating the primacy of classical, Newtonian mechanics to the entire realm of physics, yes, including the subatomic realm of quantum physics. (please seethe one-page summary in: http://www.sittampalam.net/Summary.pdf).
    . Mass and energy, like space and time have to be defined – ideally dimensionlessly, as ‘unit mass’ and ‘unit energy’. Since mass and energy are equivalent, it would be more appropriate instead to define ‘unit mass-energy.’
    And, ideally, the smallest quantum of (detectable) mass-energy would serve best for this unique status in the physics of the hereafter. Due to space restriction here, please access the following where I have made a similar comment on a related subject:
    http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/story/2012-07-04/God-particle-science-big-bang/56009718/1
    A parting thought…
    With this seeming final discovery of even the God Particle, it may go to our mortal heads that we know a lot today; but the strange truth is: The more we learn, the more we also become aware also of the ENORMITY of our ignorance.
    True learning is thus a humbling experience; it causes us to be meek, in the noblest sense of the word;
    and makes us that much better beings for a that much better world.
    Little wonder,it was of to such a final stage of the evolution of man was once said by that Great and eternal Guru transcending space and time:
    And the meek shall inherit the earth.
    Thank you all for your valuable time here – Adios!

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  21. 21. apeerally 3:58 am 08/12/2012

    I just read your article. I have deep misgivings about the Higgs boson being responsible for conferring mass which is a concept which arose, to my mind, about a lot of misinterpretation of the SM, gauge theory and about mass, relativity etc etc. After publishing my paper, in SAJS 104: 221-224, in 2008, which has been the first ever attempt to obtain both SRT and GRT within the same equation, I have been thinking and working a lot about the realities of the universe. I am writing gradually a book about my views.

    I happen to combine a good knowledge of biology and of relativity but currently I am thinking hard about the physical realities of the universe and I like Einstein a lot.

    I will be near to a good explanation of mass, how mass is conferred, about an integration of R with QT which will, I strongly feel, lead me to the beginning of a theory of everything, not in the manner others,e.g.Hawking, have been talking but in a more scientific manner, subject to experimentation and follow up for decades and centuries to come. I also hope it will throw a lot of light on what is existence and consciousness.

    With the present trauma about the Higgs conferring mass, which will be disproved, then I will start to accelerate on my book. I would be happy to join your Reflection Group if possible and to give a lecture on day in the US.

    Next week I will be in Germany for a meeting of the European Association of Science Academies where I hope to meet some people with whom I could discuss such matters of reality and existence.

    Link to this

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